Education & Family

Council challenges decision to axe school building fund

Leaders of a council where a scheme to rebuild nine secondary schools was scrapped by the education secretary have urged him to think again.

The councillors from Sandwell in the West Midlands held talks with Michael Gove in London.

Last month he scrapped more than 700 school rebuilding schemes in England, saying they were wasteful.

Sandwell Council was at first told their scheme would go ahead, to be informed days later this was wrong.

The council's leader Darren Cooper told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Our schools are in such a poor state. Some of them date back to the 1920s.

"And clearly that is not conducive to good quality of education for young people - an environment that's falling apart."

Apology

The council has resolved to use all reasonable means at its disposal to get its school rebuilding scheme back on track.

But the councillors emerged from their meeting saying that they were returning to the West Midlands empty handed, as no money was on the negotiation table.

Mr Gove has admitted he knew he was going to disappoint local authorities when he stopped the £55bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. And he was forced to apologise for the bungled handling of the announcement.

He has argued the scheme, set up by the previous Labour administration is overly bureaucratic and wasteful.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland where school rebuilding was initially put on hold, some £23m has been found to tackle school building maintenance over the coming year.

Mr Gove said there would still be money available to rebuild or refurbish dilapidated schools, and a review of how to do this is due to publish a report in the autumn.

Although the BSF fund was created in 2004, only 180 schools have been refurbished or rebuilt.

The decision to axe the scheme at the beginning of July meant a total of 735 projects were called off across England.

A further 151 are in limbo while civil servants decide if they should be cancelled or go ahead.

Many of these schemes had been on-going for some time, with councils having spent millions of pounds on preparatory work. And some were only days from signing contracts with builders.

It has led to an outcry, not only from those involved with schools, but also from the construction industry.

Some Sandwell schools feature portacabins

The chairman of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart, said Mr Gove was working hard to ensure hundreds of school buildings would still be improved.

He told Today: "All the schools in Sandwell were originally mis-categorised and it turned out that was entirely the responsibility of Partnerships for Schools; the quango that was inherited, so he's [Mr Gove] not had an easy time of it.

"But I hope from this that we can end up, which is the important thing, with better value for money, a more fair allocation of the benefits and ensuring that we deal with those schools which most need it."

A spokesman for Mr Gove said to resolve the issue with Sandwell and others left waiting for a decision as soon as possible, but no time scale has been given.

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